Some may like to believe that elections are foolproof, an exact science. That in our democracy, the winner has actually won and that the will of the people is determined automatically.
But of course we must consider human nature, and that the perfect extension of democracy is something that the citizenry evolves into over time.
Lately, the grand controversy surrounding the election debacle in Bridgeport this past fall has captured the imagination of many, some who simply dismiss all elections and politicians a reflection of corrupt human nature.
But our democracy was created to maintain a legitmate government, an optimism that some feel is unrealistic. Our response towards the mishandled election will determine whether or not we experience a spring of civic virtue or a winter of Democratic failure.
In all elections conducted solely with paper ballots, the possibility that chicanery may result is as real in 2011 as during Trumbull's brush with controversy in 1890!
Prior to Bush vs. Gore or Harper vs. Virginia Board of Education — from which comes the noble maxim, "the right of suffrage can be denied by a debasement or dilution of the weight of a citizen's vote, just as effectively as wholly prohibiting the free exercise of the franchise"— Trumbull proved that every vote counts in Mallett vs. Plumb.
In the difficult decision from the state Supreme Court, the person who actually received the most votes was not elected first selectman, a victim to legal theory and disagreement, in a time when all the candidates were on the ballot at the same time.
The little town of Trumbull, with merely 200 voters during the electoral season of 1890, found itself embroiled in a similar scandal. The right of women to vote was not granted until the republican administration of Warren G. Harding 30 years later.
Because of absent voters who simply could not make the trek to their polling place, the will of the community rested with these roughly 200 hardy souls chosen by destiny (and perhaps humanity's lust for power) to select the first selectman that year, in the building not far from the train station on Church Hill Road.
The community was consistently a democratic stronghold of farmland, a country hamlet named after George Washington's great friend, Gov. Jonathan Trumbull. It has always been separate and removed from the environs of P.T. Barnum's industrial mecca, Bridgeport.
That year, for the first time in 50 years, a republican was declared the town leader following intrigue, politics and legal wrangling. The case bounced from local elections officials to the local courts, which were sworn to uphold the legitimacy of the electoral process and included the state Supreme Court.
The contest was waged in the courts between Warren E. Plumb, the republican candidate and Orville S. Mallett, a democrat with very wealthy supporters. The ballots held two categories, democrats and republicans. The first selectman was selected at the same time as the other members of the Board of Selectmen.
The one who received the most votes from the men listed as candidates was chosen first among equals. The democrats ran Mallett and a fellow with a famous name in town (from a famous family) named Elliot P. Nichols. The republicans were named Plumb and French.
Mallett's name was listed above Nichols, who believe it or not received the most votes of all the competitors, with 105. But his contest would end that night in October at Town Hall. He would be content with just selectman. A judge would decide the plum of town politics in the Mallett-Plumb contest.
A reporter at that time noted it was a "great surprise" that town officials declared Plumb the victor that night because a republican had not won the top job —usually held by whig members or other parties — dating back to the time of federalists vs. anti-federalists.
The ensuing court battles went all the way up to the state Supreme Court, involving several votes for “O. Mallett” that had been discarded and empty envelopes in the locked ballot box.
The totals were close: Plumb received 98 votes and Mallett 97, with two separate votes for "O. Mallett." The poll moderator had decided to discard the two written votes for "O. Mallett," giving the republican the plurality. There were also three opened, empty envelopes, which aroused suspicion.
Mallett claimed that numerous votes for Plumb were invalid, placing Trumbull ahead of its time in electoral law and foreshadowing our current age where the wishes of the people can be replaced by a court.
In April 1891, Justice Torrence concluded that “Plumb is first named of 101 ballots cast while Mallet is so named [in] 98." Thus the republican Plumb received more votes than the democrat. And in the end, a judge ruled that the man who received the most votes in this locally managed election was not the one elected to Trumbull's highest office.
A curiosity follows. First, the 1890 town clerk who oversaw the election which received national media attention was no longer the clerk in 1892. The clerk during the mysterious night was named Beardsley, and in the next town contest, the new clerk is a man named Louis Wakeley.
It also listed Orville Mallett as first in the list of selectmen, and Fred Sterling and Lewis Stuart as his partners on the 1892 board.
Did Plumb not run again? Was there much ado about nothing, or cynically, do we simply conclude that sometimes local politicians take things a bit too far? In the name of power, do we lose ourselves, do we sell our virtues?
Does it matter who the first selectman was in a town of a little over 1,400 souls? What is more important is that there were human beings who lived as we live, who, honest or dishonest, were members of the community a mere 10 miles from Long Island Sound.
Citizens had hoped that the officials they trusted would fight to the death to protect them, would not squander their hard earned wealth and would be leaders deserving of the name guardians of democracy. But was the bar set too high? Had the ideals of the revolution died with Gov. Trumbull? Had the industrial revolution sapped us of our humanity?
Whatever the facts are, shrouded by the fog of an age long gone, a time of great trust in our elected officials has since been replaced by fear, doubt, rumor, hatred and partisanship. We hope to find a time of innocence once again, in our little corner of the world, where the wonderful experiment called American democracy has not yet reached its full conclusion.
Imagine what our neighbors were thinking as we entered the 20th century.